Children are exposed to drugs every day. They see adults taking
medicine for headaches, classmates using inhalers for asthma,
commericals for medications on TV and in magazines, and even people on
the news being arrested for drug use. The subject of drugs can be very
confusing - and dangerous - for kids.
The younger a child is when he begins to use drugs, the more likely
he is to develop problems associated with drug use, such as acts of
violence, unplanned or unprotected sex, school failure, or driving
The average age that a child first experiments with marijuana is 14.
And many kids become curious about drugs even sooner. Even children as
young as 5 can become involved with drugs. Inhalants, in particular, are
abused more often by younger children than older ones. According to the
National Institute on Drug Abuse, about 6% of U.S. children have tried
inhalants by the time they reach the fourth grade.
If you're concerned that your child may be using drugs, keep reading
to find out how you can tell and what you can do about it.
Young people may use drugs for many reasons that are related to factors
such as their self-esteem, how they get along with others, and their
environment. No single reason determines who will use drugs and who
won't, but there are common risk factors to be aware of:
- low grades or poor school achievement
- hostile, defiant behavior
- tendency to be influenced excessively by peers
- lack of adequate support or supervision
- history of behavior problems
- history of drug use by siblings or friends
It can be hard to know the difference between normal childhood behavior
and behavior caused by drug use. Changes in hairstyle or dress may alarm
parents but may be normal behaviors. On the other hand, changes that are
extreme or sudden may signal drug use.
It may help to ask yourself the following questions:
- Does my child seem withdrawn, depressed, or tired?
- Has my child become hostile or uncooperative?
- Have my child's relationships with other family members changed?
- Has my child dropped his old friends?
- Has my child lost interest in or drastically changed his
- Has my child lost interest in hobbies, sports, or other favorite
- Have my child's eating or sleeping patterns changed?
- Does my child suffer from headaches, nosebleeds, or other physical
problems for no apparent reason?
- Have I noticed the odor of chemicals or drugs around my child?
- Do aerosol products at home seem to be used much too quickly?
Positive answers to such questions may indicate drug use. However,
these signs may also apply to a child who is not using drugs but who may
have other problems, such as depression or an eating disorder.
Be aware of common drug paraphernalia. Possession of items such as
pipes, rolling papers, small medicine bottles, cans of whipped cream or
other aerosol products, or syringes may signal that your child is using
What Can a Parent Do?
If you think your child may be using drugs, ask other adults in your
child's life if they have noticed changes in your child's behavior. The
best place to start is at school - talk with your child's teachers,
guidance counselor, school nurse, or coach. Many schools now have
prevention specialists on the counseling staff who can help you if you
think your child is using drugs.
Communicating with your child at this time is very important. If he
is reluctant to talk, enlist the aid of his guidance counselor, doctor,
or a local drug treatment referral and assessment center.
Also explore what could be going on in your child's emotional or
social life that might prompt drug use. Is there anything going on at
home or school that could be responsible for his shift in behavior?
Even when the signs are obvious, parents sometimes have difficulty
admitting that their child could have a problem. Anger, guilt, and a
sense of failure as a parent are common reactions. If your child is
using drugs, it is important to avoid blaming yourself for the problem
and to get whatever help is needed as soon as possible.
Be consistent in enforcing whatever punishment your family has chosen
for this type of rule violation, such as revoking driving privileges. Do
not relent because your child promises never to do it again.
Many young people lie about their drug use. If the evidence suggests
that your child is not being truthful, you may wish to have your child
evaluated by a health professional, such as an adolescent medicine
specialist, experienced in diagnosing children with drug-related
Depending upon the severity of your child's drug use, you will
probably need help to intervene. Call your doctor, local hospital, state
or local substance abuse agencies, or county mental health society for a
referral to a drug treatment program in your area. Your school district
should have a substance abuse counselor who can refer you to treatment
programs. Parents whose children have been through treatment programs
can also provide information and support to help you deal with your